Scenius: building a culture with permission to innovate

Scenius: building a culture with permission to innovate

My dad is a massive Queen fan. Of the band that is. I grew up on the music of Freddie Mercury and co and I am now starting to introduce my daughter to their timeless music. They have had so many hits over such a long period of time. It just blows my mind when you work through the song catalogue. From ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ to ‘I want it all‘ to ‘This thing called love‘, their song catalogue is an eclectic mix of genre hopping genius and innovative songwriting.

What drove this ongoing creativity and innovation?

Of course, all four members of Queen were highly skilled musicians. This, however, wasn’t the key factor. It was their democratic process of writing songs. Queen is the only band in which every member has composed more than one chart-topping single, and all four members were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003.

The internal rule Queen had was that if you wrote the song, you received the publishing royalties. It was this constant striving to create, to push the boundaries that drove their career. Creative one-upmanship with high reward. As a group, they created a culture of creative competitiveness built on a bedrock of professional and personal respect. In her book, Beyond Measure, Margaret Heffernan describes this structure as heterarchy. Heterarchy is:

“an informal structure that changes in response to need. Central to the idea of heterarchies is the belief that everyone matters. The best idea leads.”

Through heterarchy, Queen created a culture where the best idea led, irrespective of where it came from. And culture is everything! Brian Eno (musician and producer) calls this a scenius.

“Under this model, great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals—artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakers—who make up an “ecology of talent.”

The great music scenes of our time had this ecology of talent. Motown, Seattle, Los Angelus, the list goes on. Creative competitiveness, imitation, idea expansion and support are key drivers in the advancement of a music scene. In Show your Work, Austin Kleon writes

“Scenius doesn’t take away from the achievements of those great individuals; it just acknowledges that good work isn’t created in a vacuum, and that creativity is always, in some sense, a collaboration, the result of a mind connected to other minds.

Every school has talent. Every school has silos of innovation. The challenge is creating a scene where great ideas are allowed to lead and that ecology of talent is allowed to blossom. The right structures play a key part. Staff should feel that they have the freedom to innovate. Adrian Camm at Geelong College allocated his staff cards that stated “Permission to Innovate”. A tangible token that permits all staff to ‘have a go’, to ‘jam out an idea’. This frontline approach impacts classroom practice because it creates a culture where staff question everything, think divergently and constantly iterate on their practice. The ecology of talent improves as each teacher permits themselves to innovate.

A groundswell builds.

A culture shifts.

A scenius is born.

Struggling with focus? Strategies to help you sharpen your concentration

Struggling with focus? Strategies to help you sharpen your concentration

Do you struggle to maintain concentration for an extended period of time? Do you find that the length of time that you can focus your attention has severely deteriorated over the past few years? Twelve months ago, I would have answered yes to both questions. There was a melting pot of reasons for this. Environmental, personal and structural tended to be the category headings for most. An open plan office, an inability to say ‘no’ and a daily structure that responded to the needs of others at the sacrifice of my own. I often left work scattered and unfulfilled. The day would start with the best of intentions but would derail and leave me feeling unproductive and to be perfectly honest, really unhappy. I felt like a passenger in my own existence, unable to produce the quality of work that I so desired. In his classic book, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says

“the mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life.”

In essence, your capacity to concentrate intensely, to focus your attention to achieve a goal is a major factor in determining happiness. I needed to make changes.

Twelve months ago I made some big changes.

It started with owning my morning. Running and exercise have always been great outlets for me. As I said to my wife, I am a better person when I run regularly (she agrees!). The challenge was that I loved to run after work and this is not easy when you have two kids under six. The routine takes over. So I had to run early in the morning. I started getting up at 5am (otherwise known as stupid ‘o clock) and running in the darkness. You learn to sharpen your focus quick smart when you run in pitch black. I also didn’t let inclement weather deter me. I ran when it was raining. I ran when it was freezing. The benefits for me far outweighed the costs. I also found the weather really helped keep you in the moment.

The next battle was with my attention. In Smarter, Faster, Better, Charles Duhigg states that “to be genuinely productive, we must take control of our attention”. For me, the challenge was that I divided my attention amongst too many things. I needed to be able to prioritise better and to let things slide by. The change happened when I was introduced to meditation. The first introduction was via the Headspace app and is a great space for anyone new to meditation. I used to think that meditation was all ‘oms’ and ‘chakras’ but it is actually just about stopping and being present. Ten minutes a day doesn’t seem like a lot of time but it does when you are meditating. I found my mind wondering and constantly having to bring it back to focus. This is normal! Meditation came and went for a little while but I started a daily habit at the start of this year and I’ve meditated 99.9% of this year. I use Insight Timer as my app of choice. It has a great variety of meditations (short, long, morning, binaural beats, etc…) and is free. You can also earn accomplishments by keeping your streak of meditating going. I meditate every morning and it is a great way to start the day. My mind still wonders but I’m much more conscious of it.

Adam Grant, the author of Originals and Give and Take, is renowned for his quality of work and for his volume of work. He is the youngest tenured professor at Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). His formula for success is easy.

High Quality Work Produced = Time Spent x Intensity of focus

Having a large block of time with a clear goal is key. You then need to make sure that you work with intensity. In a previous life, I worked as a gym instructor and I would often marvel at the people who would come to the gym for hours and barely raise a sweat. Intensity is what helps you achieve your goals. I guard my schedule now. Morning meetings are really limited. This is the best time for high-quality work. I also try to keep meetings and emails to a minimum. I wrote a post last week on my personal inquiry into where my time goes. I am employed to do great work, not to warm chairs and play email ping pong. Yes, these are essential but a day that only consists of these is, in my opinion, a waste.

To help me focus in an open plan office, I use bucket headphones and is music designed by an AI engine for the brain to enhance focus. I had read lots of binaural beats and power of the repetitive tones on focus. I tried YouTube clips of binaural beats, focus soundtracks on Spotify but eventually locked down on I used multiple email addresses to sign up for the free ten sessions and I have committed to a yearly subscription. It is the best $47 I have spent this year. I find it really helps block out the background noise and focus my attention on the task at hand. I think of it as blinkers for the open plan office. When I am at home, I use a technique called box breathing (or four square breathing) before I start my writing/work. It is brilliant for slowing the breath and helping to start my focus period off in style. I use the BoxBreathing app for this. In combination with, I have seen huge improvements in my ability to focus.

The challenge with work that is digitally based is the click bait. Clifford Nass, a Professor from Stanford who studies behaviour in the digital age, has found that constant attention switching online has lasting negative effects on your brain. In his words, constant switching is making us dumber. A little sensationalist for my liking but still something to be really wary of. Are you constantly starting a task and finding ten minutes later that you are nowhere near that task or struggling to remember what that task was?  If so, take some steps. These steps worked for me. The first step is recognising that it is having an impact.

Books that have rocked my thinking this year

Books that have rocked my thinking this year

I love books. Since I could read I have had my head buried in a book. I read anything I could get my hands on. When I ran out of books, I reached for anything. Not sure there are many nearly 40-year-old males who have read all the Babysitter’s Club books (Thanks sis). My local library was my haven when I was a kid and I’m stoked that I have a great local library in my neighbourhood now. My reading preferences have changed a little over years. I don’t read much fiction anymore. I prefer biographies and books on education, personal development and sport. This post is a little share of some of my favourites from the past year:


Peak by Anders Ericsson

Ericsson’s 30+ year dedication to studying the habits and performance of expert performers is what Peak is all about. After hearing him explain his work on so many podcasts, I was bursting to read this one. In Peak, Ericsson lists ‘deliberate practice’ as the reason why expert performance is achieved by some and not others. Deliberate practice involves deconstructing the performance of elite performers to determine the vital components required for superior performance. From here, the development of mental representations, short intense feedback looks and targeted practice of the components are used. A short paragraph doesn’t do the book justice. A definite must read.


Beyond Measure – Margaret Heffernan

This little gem was inspired by Margaret’s Ted Talk and there is so much wisdom packed into this one. Heffernan shares insights on building great organisational culture and practice. She explores the topics of social capital, conflict, productivity, creativity and structure. Some of my favourite pearls of wisdom are listed below.


3 qualities of great creative problem-solving teams (p24)

  1. Giving each other time to talk

  2. Social sensitivity – tuned into each other’s moods

  3. More women


“Network nodes – real influences of organisations; the people who intersect with the most people” (p30)

How many people do you intersect with at your school or business?


20 Hours – Josh Kaufman

An afternoon of TED talks led to Josh Kaufman’s book. I read this one after Ericsson’s book because I was instantly intrigued by the seemingly opposite approach to mastery. Kaufman references Ericsson’s work quite significantly. The difference is that Kaufman is not on a pursuit to excellence, just a pursuit to being good. In the book, he deconstructs skill acquisition and learns a range of new skills in just 20 hours. The three-stage model of skill acquisition he outlines is:

  1. Cognitive (Early) stage – understanding what you’re trying to do, researching, thinking about the process, and breaking the skill into manageable parts.

  2. Associative (Intermediate) stage – practicing the task, noticing environmental feedback, and adjusting your approach based on that feedback.

  3. Autonomous (Late) stage – performing the skill effectively and efficiently without thinking about it or paying unnecessary attention to the process.

Kaufman’s Ted Talk is a good place to start for those who are interested in checking out more.


Show your work and Steal like an artist by Austin Kleon

These little gems were discovered via my local library. They are really easy to read and this is brilliant because you jump back into them over and over again. In Show your Work, Kleon lists ten reasons why you need to let the world see your work. He talks about ‘being an amateur’ and having a beginner’s mindset. He also talks about volume being key and that using Jerry Seinfeld’s chain technique is a great way to keep the creating streak alive. Don’t break the chain. In Steal like an artist, Kleon lists ten strategies to help you create original work. My favourite is below:

Step 1: Wonder at something.

Step 2: Invite others to wonder with you.

You should wonder at the things nobody else is wondering about.

What do you wonder about?


Smart change – Art Markman

I discovered Art via a podcast and found his insight into how the brain works fascinating. Smart Change really helped me understand how habits are formed and the conditions required to change them.

“It is crucial to make daily progress on long-term goals. A contribution is not made in one sprint.”

Markman outlines some really effective and simple to use techniques to help you change your behaviour.


Ted Talks – Chris Anderson

Who better to share tips and techniques for improving your public speaking than Chris Anderson, the curator of Ted. Anderson uses Ted examples to share different techniques to help speakers of all abilities improve.

“Overstuffed equals under-explained” – So often we try to say too much and in the end all we do is leave our audience confused or unsatisfied.

“To say something interesting, you have to take the time to do at least two things 

  1. Show why it matters…what’s the question you’re trying to answer, the problem you’re trying to solve, the experience you’re trying to share?

  2. Flesh out each point you make with real examples, stories, facts


A really insightful and practical book.


Smarter, faster, better – Charles Duhigg

I discovered this book as I have a lot of the books I read via a podcast interview. Srinivas Rao and his Unmistakable Creative podcast is a gold mine for great new books and authors. Duhigg’s book analyses the following areas; Teams, Decision making, Focus, Goal setting, Motivation and Managing Others. I really enjoyed the hero narrative he used to introduce and conceptualise each area. The story of the world’s automotive plant being turned in the world’s best through the use of lean manufacturing was by far my favourite. The power of process and people shining through.  A true strength-based approach to working.

“Lean manufacturing – built to exploit everyone’s expertise”.


Originals – Adam Grant

I have Hamish Curry to thank for putting me on to this one. In Originals, Grant explores original thinkers and dissects their practices to discover how they come up with original work. I really like the way Grant writes. He can make the incomprehensible accessible. Practical and insightful, Originals is for anyone interested in creating. Start creating now as the volume of work you create helps increase your capacity for originality.


Tools of Titans – Tim Ferris

I am a huge fan of the Tim Ferris show podcast. The quality and diversity of Tim’s guests are second to none. In Tools of Titans, Tim shares the habits and insights of these famous, infamous and downright amazing people. This book is huge but easy to read. I find that I just dive in randomly and read a few pages. Tim’s interviewees for the podcast/book are so diverse that you can’t go wrong reading the book in any direction.


Deep Work – Cal Newport

As is evident by my recent writing, this book has had a profound impact on me. Deep work is “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” Newport provides evidence, strategies and anecdotes to support his push for people to explore deep work. In a world where distraction is rife, being able to block it all out and concentrate deeply is becoming in Newport’s words, a superpower. A read for anyone currently questioning their current ability to connect with their work.


Shoe Dog – Phil Knight

This book was a gift from my sister and I probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise. That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Nike as a brand is the epitome of confidence and high performance. I had no idea their beginning was the complete opposite of that. Phil Knight writes with a vulnerability that I really liked. It made his story really accessible.



The Rise of Superman – Steven Kotler
This book I discovered once again by podcast. Podcasts sure are the new book tours. I love it because I am constantly exposed to new ideas and authors to read. Kotler’s book is about the rapid rise in performance of extreme adventure athletes due to flow state. This book meshes two loves of mine: sports and performance improvement. Kotler provides a window into the mindset and psyche of athletes who push the boundary to achieve beyond what man believed to be possible. Take for example, Tony Hawk. He was the first to complete a 900 (a skateboard trick that requires two and a half spins in the air). Nobody thought this trick was possible. Tony is arguably the greatest ever. A few years later, a 12-year-old named Tom Schaar completes it. Schaar has even gone on to extend the trick and the new bar is a 1080. For those interested in the world of optimal performance, this is a must read. Inspired by this book, I am currently rereading “Flow” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

These books have helped shape my thinking over the past year. What books have done the same for you?

Four strategies to help you build your writing capacity

Four strategies to help you build your writing capacity
Your laptop is ready. A cup of freshly brewed coffee sits next to you. You’re ready. You sit poised. You start. Then nothing comes out. Nada. Zilch. Nothing. Sound familiar? Writing is challenging. I’d like to say that the words flow from my fingers but I would be bullshitting you. There are days where it does and there are days of tumbleweeds. The thing I have learnt over the past two months of writing every day that it does get easier to write. But those two scenarios don’t disappear. Writing is equal parts cathartic and despairing.
This post will share a few strategies that I have borrowed or concocted to build my writing capacity. The first one is the maintenance of a daily habit. I have written here about this. A daily habit is the engine room behind consistent writing. I have written some work I am proud of over the past few months and some work that may not pass Year 7 English. I liken it to my guitar playing. I have riffs I have written that I love and then a whole lot of crap. The joy of writing a great riff is what keeps me playing. Same goes for writing.
The next part is feedback. It is sad to say but in the hyper-connected world we live in, this is not as easy as pressing publish. There are a few people who I can always count on to engage with my out loud thinking (Thanks Aaron!). Medium is a great space to reach an audience that lives outside the world of my PLN. To get feedback on my writing structure I use an app called Hemingway app. This has helped to improve the clarity of what I’m trying to say.
The hardest part is figuring out what to say in a post. This is where we battle ourselves for original ideas. Don’t. Austin Kleon says it best in his book “Steal like an Artist”,
“What a good artist understands is that nothing comes from nowhere. All creative work builds on what came before. Nothing is completely original.”
The Beatles and Rolling Stones began as cover bands. Be inspired by the work of others. If we continue with the music analogy, most of my blog posts riff off of the original ideas of others. I write to understand them further. I write to engage with the opinions of others. I attribute their work but in essence, I’m borrowing their ideas. I’m intrigued by their work. Kleon also says that “if we copy from one artist, it is plagiarism. If you copy from many, it is research. Copying is reverse-engineering”. The key is to connect with a multitude of angles and ideas. Be a cover band of many artists!
The next strategy I use I have borrowed from a multitude of people. In “How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen”, Ewan McIntosh calls it the “Bug list and Idea Wallet”. Kleon calls it the “Swipe File”. McIntosh’s Bug list is a space (digital or physical) where you gather “things you notice that just don’t work as well as they could do.” The Ideas wallet is a space to capture inspiration as it happens. This is similar to Kleon’s Swipe file. A Swipe file is where you swipe ideas you connect with. To achieve this, I use a Trello board. Trello is a huge part of my daily workflow and it works with so many modes of media. I like that I can send items via email. I can copy links via the browser. I can type ideas straight in. It provides me with a great space to revisit to find an item to riff off. Often this leads to a rabbit hole of inspiration and then I’m off.
My bug list and idea wallet
I also read and read and read (a post coming shortly discussing some my recent favs). As I read, I sticky note the heck out of the book. Quotes, research, other books to check, important facts, interesting stories, anything that jumps out at me. I then revisit these notes once I have finished the book and type them up in OneNote. I started this practice for two reasons. Firstly because I wanted to continue to connect with these thoughts and insights. I wanted access to these thoughts when I was writing. Secondly, I didn’t own the books, having borrowed them from my awesome local library. It is a practice I wasn’t sure I would sustain but I have. I enjoy it because it is like compiling a mixed tape of my favourite parts of the book. I often find myself jumping back into the book to continue to explore. I then revisit these ideas long after I have returned the book. It is an interesting way to connect with the ideas. Typing them out connects me physically to them. The ideas roll out around in my head as my fingers pound the keyboard. While it may appear a mundane process, it does work.
Continuing my sticky note addiction
My mix tape collection of ideas in OneNote
Having these strategies in place helps with the conditioning required for regular writing. Like stretching and eating right work for exercise, these strategies work for my writing. For the regular writers out there, I would love to know what you use to help you with your conditioning. As always, thoughts and feedback welcome.

Take control and find out where all your time goes.

Take control and find out where all your time goes.

Where does all your time go? What has the greatest impact on your daily energy and is it the right use of your time? I have long pursued living a deliberate life. A life where my energy is used in the right places. Where conscious decisions lead to a better home and work life. We are all driven and ambitious. Wanting to live a life that is rich and fulfilling. The challenge is often time. While it is often a legitimate hurdle, sometimes it can be a ‘get out of jail free’ card. There are so many things we could do with our lives if we just had more time. Oh, the skills we could master, the projects we could complete.

So where does all your time go?

I have spent the past two weeks figuring this out. On episode 7 of Design and Play, my co-host Dean Pearman put me on to an app called Toggl. Toggl is a time tracking application that allows you to capture where you spend your energy and time. It is available via a browser, desktop (Mac & PC) download or as a mobile application. It is free but you can upgrade via subscription for some more features. The free version is more than enough.

Toggl’s default screen

To start, you create projects. These are broad categories like Meetings, Ordering, Email, etc…. You then specify the details of the category. For example, if your broad category is Meetings, then your subcategory would be what that meeting is about. When that meeting starts, you press the green play button and a timer starts for that meeting. When the meeting finishes, you press the stop button. It’s that simple. Consciously recording your time for your tasks during the day really changes how you view your time allocation. There are so many times when I reach for my phone while waiting for something. It’s just habit. I recorded all of that time. It was really interesting to see how much time I spent each day looking at social media. It also stopped me many times from just checking it randomly. Instead, I would consciously check it. I would batch check in with my PLN. Instead of constantly responding to messages as they came in, I would wait until I deliberately chose to respond. I would then check all social media. Batching tasks together has been a game changer for me. This deliberate approach allows me to focus my attention and to be more present and productive.

Batch email – Working on taming the email beast

Times can be collected automatically by pressing play or by manual entry. This is a great feature as it allows you to add entries you may have forgotten. As I started using Toggl more, I started to add in categories that I have never logged. Informal meetings and ordering (like you Dean) took up a fair amount of time. The interesting thing about these new categories was when they took place and how often they would cut into a period where I was working deeply. In Toggl, you can see this by enabling the timeline feature. This feature allows you to see when in your day these items took place. Your energy is the best at the start of the day so this is the time that should be devoted to the most demanding tasks. This insight led me to adjust my environment. If I needed to work on a project that required intense concentration, I would find a quiet spot away from my team until that was complete. Once I was back in the office, I was present and ready to chat. This deliberate choice allowed me to feel like I was giving each of these important elements the right attention. Cal Newport calls this the ‘hub and spoke’ approach. Solitary work with large periods of concentration mixed with communal conversations. In David Thornburg’s words, cave time mixed with watering hole time.

Using the timeline to see when you complete deep work

This approach then lead me to utilise another feature of Toggl. Each recorded time can have tags added which can provide another filter to view your data through. I started to categorise each task as shallow work or deep work. I classified items such as email, ordering and social media as shallow work. Deep work examples are daily writing, teaching and staff professional development. Using the Report section of Toggl, I could break down each day into how often I worked in deep concentration on cognitively challenging tasks. I could then compare this to how much shallow work I was completing. This data really does open a Pandora’s box of questions. Deep work needs to be scheduled for the morning and in large chunks of time. Shallow work should be scheduled for the afternoon when my brain is slowing down. Toggl’s timeline feature also allows you to visualise this. You can see where your time goes throughout the day and see if you are setting your day out to fully optimise your body’s natural energy flow.

My deep work for the week
My shallow work

By using Toggl, I am being more proactive in how I decide to use my time. I reflect on the days that work better than others. Sleep is a big factor in how the day will pan out and so I am deliberate in my sleep routine to allow for a good night’s sleep. Measuring where my time goes is a conscious and deliberate decision. I want to feel like I have accomplished something with my day. I want time to work on the projects that make me feel alive. I don’t want the excuse of time to dictate how I live my life.

You have more time than you think.

The first step is to find out where it goes in the first place.

The next is to analyse it.

Are you spending your time wisely?

The power of being present

The power of being present

How do you power down?
What strategies do you use to switch off from the pressures and pull of work?
What conscious steps do you take to transition from work to home?
What routines and habits do you have that allow you leave work at your front door step?
How are you present at home?
What conscious choices are you making to leave work at work?
You decide.
You set the expectations.
You create the precedence.
You set the standard.
You create the habit.
You choose to be where you are.
Take the time to build a routine that allows you to be present at work and at home.
You decide.

Find your ‘flow channel’ and grow by 4% every day.

Find your ‘flow channel’ and grow by 4% every day.

The “challenge/skill” ratio is listed in the ‘Rise of Superman’ by Steven Kotler as one of the most important triggers of flow. Flow is what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, calls the ‘optimal experience‘. Csíkszentmihályi lists ten core components of flow, which I won’t go into detail in this post. I do have however want to pick one up. The challenge to skill ratio. Finding the right balance between the challenge of an activity and your skill level is a sweet spot called the ‘flow channel’. The activity is just hard enough to grab your attention. Too hard and fear takes over. Too easy and boredom sets in. Finding this balance is the optimal zone for flow. Kotler’s research lists the challenge factor as a 4 percent increase on your current ability. 4 percent. That’s it. If each day, you improved by 4%, you would have improved by 1460% in a year. That’s an astronomical rate of growth. The stretch is the key part. Differentiation in schools is a complex beast. 25+ students in a class. Each with individual needs, talents, learning dispositions and personal baggage. How do you design a learning experience that stretches each student by 4%? The first step is to understand motivation. In his book ‘Drive‘, Dan Pink lists Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose as the key ingredients for motivation.

1. Mastery — the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
2. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
3. Purpose — the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.

Daniel Pink – Drive

How is learning differentiated in your classroom? Is that learning stretching your students to grow by 4%? If not, where is it falling down? Thinking of my own class, the challenge to skill ratio definitely plays a factor. Another key factor is self-perception. Beliefs about their own ability often can prevent students filling their mastery bucket. It is better to save face than to risk the social fallout of a public failure. In a program, I run for students called Creative Minds, we use the making of Rube Goldberg machines as the trojan horse to develop student capacity to self-start and stretch themselves. They see the mental and physical investment as within their reach. They have complete autonomy over the direction of the project and the purpose is stated clearly. They know where they need to go and they can build the path to get there. Students volunteer to stay back and continue with their work. True motivation. Motivation that leads to the ‘flow channel’.

How Might We design learning that finds the ‘flow channel’ for all learners?

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